Empowering Women to Work

Dress for Success provides career coaching and interview essentials
to disadvantaged women

Story by KAREN JOHNSON

 Pat Nathan, DFST Founder

Pat Nathan, DFST Founder

It started with a picture of a suit and a sign that read: “To Many Women, This is a Life Jacket.” That was 10 years ago, and after seeing that sign Pat Nathan founded Dress for Success Triangle with the vision to provide “life jackets” for Triangle women. Nathan, a former executive from Dell, combined her head for business and her heart for empowering women to launch what would become one of the strongest and most innovative affiliates in the global Dress for Success organization.

At its inception in 1997, the single purpose of the nonprofit, Dress for Success Worldwide, was to provide an interview suit to economically disadvantaged women who were looking for jobs. The interview suit, or lack thereof, could be the life jacket or the roadblock to becoming financially stable.

 joylyn day

joylyn day

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Dress for Success Triangle looks much different than its original model. Women need more than a suit to build or rebuild their careers. Since 2008, the faces of women looking for jobs have evolved as much as the job search landscape and those factors, along with local economic trends, have driven the growth and direction of the programs. Looking for a job can be expensive and, if it is to be done effectively, an individual could spend upward of $500. The Dress for Success Triangle organization provides free job search tools to women regardless of their age, education, or career path.

There are also unseen or intangible costs, often tallied in the emotional toll of a search, which can be hard to measure and can lead to feelings of isolation or defeat. Perhaps the most important aspect of a successful search—confidence— is hard to maintain without support.

Joylyn Day landed a job quickly after gaining confidence in her abilities. “I started the job acquisition program [at Dress for Success] discouraged about my future, based on my past,” she explains. “Going through the program taught me that [the past] was just an experience, and it was time to move on. Dress for Success gave me the confidence and the comfortable space to do just that.”

 rebecca palmer

rebecca palmer

And while the state boasts unemployment rates lower than 4 percent, knowing how to direct a search is the key to success when looking for a new job, a better job, or a dream job. Gail McCowan, a career coach at Dress for Success, sees women come in with a number of challenges that hinder their searches. “For someone who has not looked for work in a while, the most difficult part may be figuring out how the process works in 2018,” McCowan says, adding that social media has added unfamiliar territory for many job seekers who are attempting to resume a career.

Understanding how to leverage social media platforms, along with determining what her relevant skills are in the current market, may be the hardest part for a mature woman seeking a fresh start. “For others, building a network where they have none may be the most challenging, and for some the most difficult thing might be to determine what it is that she wants to do,” McCowan explains. “It’s really hard to do a job search when you don’t have a specific target.”

Joanne Repinecz, formerly the vice president of recruiting at Extrinsic, now serves as the career development specialist at Dress for Success. She works with local companies to plan job fairs and she works with clients to refine their search, keep them motivated, and nurture their network. Repinecz says after years of working in the recruiting industry and watching the evolution of the online job search, the most important aspect of the search is still to develop and leverage your network.

Volunteer career and image coaches deliver the job acquisition and job retention programs that guide women through the maze of job search options. The coaches work one-on-one with clients so that they look and feel ready for the interview, the salary negotiation, and acclimating to a new job. Success rates are high for the women who walk through the doors: 74 percent of those in the job acquisition program land a job, many building their networks as they go through the program.

Local corporations like MetLife, IBM, SAS, and Wells Fargo hold mock interviews and networking events, and they even launch some careers. Rebecca Palmer participated in the 10-week job acquisition program and applied online for a position at a local bank. Her application was met with silence. Then she went on a mock interview for that same bank and learned what she could do differently to her resume. She resent her resume, got an interview, and then landed the job.

While Dress for Success is a nonprofit and funded by donations, the Triangle affiliate is also a thriving social enterprise. The Raleigh and Durham donation centers receive almost 1 million pieces of clothing, shoes, and accessories a year. Those donations don’t always align with the needs of clients, so the staff and volunteers plan five excess inventory sales a year—with 100 percent of the proceeds funding programs. The sales, held at Northgate Mall in Durham and at Tillery Place in Raleigh, account for 20 percent of the overall budget.

As Dress for Success Triangle celebrates its 10th anniversary, some 14,500 women in this area are celebrating their career success. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and development tools to help women thrive in work and life.